This writing is an assignment for Justin Lanier’s Math is Personal smOOC. The first prompt was to “start writing an account of the story that you tell to yourself about what your mathematical experiences have been.”

This is a difficult thing for me to write about (which is the reason I was interested in the course in the first place). It is difficult because I don’t feel that I am the ordinary math teacher who grew up loving math and having a passion for it. Nor am I the ordinary math teacher who grew up struggling with math and decided to teach in order to help others who struggle. (At least those are the two most ordinary stories I hear…particularly during interviews).

My story is different than those. I excelled in math classes. Actually I excelled in everything, but math stood out because fewer people excelled. But I certainly didn’t love it. I didn’t have a passion for it. But I also had *no idea* what mathematics was. I was never exposed to finding patterns or structure. I was never exposed to *posing* problems. I was never exposed to figuring out something mathematical on my own. Heck, I was never (really) exposed to anything remotely “real-world”. In other words, I was never exposed to mathematics. And that, quite frankly, *pisses me off*.

It makes me angry for two reasons. First, I paid a price for this lack of exposure. In my junior and senior engineering courses, I lacked the ability to apply much of the math that I had been taught. (Yes, even my college math courses taught very procedurally – here’s how you do it, now do it). I can recall several times in those engineering courses, and even at my actual engineering jobs, being embarrassed by my inability to apply math to novel situations. (This is why Shawn Cornally’s “Confessions of an AP Scholar” hit home with me).

Second, I didn’t know that I actually had a passion for mathematics. You would think if you pretty much aced every math class through Calc 4, you might at some point find that you liked math. But alas, this did not happen. In fact, this didn’t truly happen until a couple of years ago when I read Paul Lockhart’s “A Mathematician’s Lament”. That spurred me to read more and as it turns out, I really do like mathematics.

I think the saddest part of all of this is that I taught for a good four years before this realization. That means that I had four years of students who learned math (the same way I was taught) from a teacher who lacked passion. If I could find them, I’d apologize to each and every one of them. And it’s these kinds of thoughts and recollections that drive my teaching presently.

I’ve tried to make mathematical discussions a much larger part of my class. Here’s what I’ve done.

**The Protocols**

To begin, my school is very protocol-driven. We use many of the protocols from the National School Reform Faculty, among others, along with protocols we create, tune, and share amongst ourselves. I use all kinds of protocols in class, including to run discussions. So these are what I’ve used this year.

Text-Based Seminar

For discussions based on texts, nothing beats the good old NSRF Text-Based Seminar. We use it often in Advisory (and for staff meetings). I used it toward the beginning of the year to discuss an excerpt from What’s Math Got to Do With It? (around page 40-41 if you’re interested…I don’t want to break any copyright laws). The trick as facilitator – as with any protocol – is to stick to the protocol, which in this case means holding learners accountable to referring to the text when speaking.

Pros: Keeps participants focused on the topic at hand without becoming a random opinion-spouting session.

Cons: This is a great protocol, but the opportunity to use it doesn’t come up all that much in my class.

Progress Fishbowl

This is a protocol I created based on a standard fishbowl when most of the class was struggling with a problem. I mean *really* struggling. A couple of groups in each class were finding some good solution paths and I wanted a way for them to share it productively. This one’s a bit lengthy – it could probably be pared in half.

Pros: Allows those with good ideas for solutions paths to help others without resorting to a “tutoring” situation. Those outside the fishbowl can come to their understanding through participation in the discussion rather than being told what to do.

Cons: It can get messy, particularly if some are *totally* lost. One time the protocol broke down entirely because the discussion was good enough on its own merits that a protocol was no longer needed. In that case, the class renamed it “the broken fishbowl”…we even drew a logo for it.

Linking Fishbowl

This protocol was my attempt to be sure all voices were heard. I’ve used it for conjectures on problems that were complex, yet had a low entry point. Most of the thinking is done beforehand, so it kind of amounts to a glorified share-out…until a learner pushes the previous speaker’s reasoning. Then it becomes glorious.

Pros: All voices are definitely heard, the discussion moves quickly, and it can go fantastically well when learners push each others’ thinking.

Cons: Since it is more of a share-out, learners can become disengaged once they’ve shared.

Yes, And… Protocol

My most recent creation, I used this for a similar reason as the Progress Fishbowl – to gather all the good ideas in one place and help those that needed it come to a better understanding. However, I wanted to avoid the breakdowns that can happen when disagreements occur, so learners had to build on what the previous speaker had said by prefacing with “Yes, and…” – which made for some great conversation. This went so well that it sparked me to write this post. I hardly had to say a word – my favorite kind of discussion!

Pros: All voices were heard, and great ideas were shared and improved upon.

Cons: It was actually fairly time-consuming. If you’ve got short class periods, it may not work for you (I have 90 minute periods, so I can pretty much do whatever I want).

What makes these kinds of discussions work? As a class and as a school, we focus on building a culture of trust, respect, and responsibility. We spend the first week-and-a-half of the school year exclusively on building culture – we don’t even touch content. Trust me, this pays off. Among other things, it creates the environment where these kinds of discussions are possible.

Also, it isn’t as if we do nothing but protocols. We have discussions everyday that are more typical of a classroom. But these are a great way to come to a wider understanding as a group for an important topic.

I’m leaving so much out; these protocols in a vacuum are worthless. But I thought they might spark some ideas for anyone looking for new ways to discuss mathematics in their classrooms.

Side note: I recently purchased Smith & Stein’s Five Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions, but I also bought three other books at the same time (including the long version of A Mathematician’s Lament) so I haven’t even cracked it. That is to say that this post is a baseline of sorts; I want to get my thoughts and current strategies for discussions in writing before it all (probably) changes after reading Five Practices.

I just remembered that the main reason I created this blog was to post problems that I had been working on or thinking about…but apparently I forgot about that. So, finally, here is a new problem.

This was from last year and, because it’s very recognizable, I have decided not to use it again this year (I have a completely revamped problem ready to go, but don’t want to share too early…).

The problem was their introduction to right-triangle trig. The problem consisted of two documents. The first poses the problem, the second was created after the learners generated their need-to-knows. Of course, this is just the problem…the rest of the scaffolding, practice, protocols, etc. is not included because, well, that would mean I’d have to kill this blog because it’d take me too long to post.

**First document**: the problem scenario.

**Second document**: more information. (please excuse the stick man).

**UPDATE April 12, 2013: Here is what I did this year instead…same idea, different picture. I liked it better.**

**First document: **the problem scenario.

**Second document: **more information.

I’ve decided to follow Geoff’s lead, and help give the gift of Math Ed by listing some of my favorite blog posts from the past year. Geoff, and others in the comments, have listed some pretty solid posts, so I’m simply adding more.

Here goes, in no particular order:

- Bowman’s My 3 Favorite Whiteboarding Modes – this is the post that finally got me to take the trip to Lowes.
- David’s What if we gave them the answers? – I love any post that challenges my perspective on assessment.
- Bryan’s The Trouble With Assessment – same deal: any new perspective on assessment strikes a chord with me, and this pushed me to attempt my own version of portfolio assessments.
- Geoff’s We must get rid of Algebra because Roger C. Schank can’t behave at parties, knows weird mathematicians – this made me laugh surprisingly hard considering the fairly serious nature of the topic.
- Kate’s Hours of Entertainment – another reminder for me that there just might be a way to make
*anything*fun. - Michael’s White Paper on Problem Solving: The Why – I appreciated this series of posts, with the exception of the cats – I don’t like cats.
- Nat’s Bike Trail Task – I thought this was a cool idea, but the main reason I’m including it is because – and I might be wrong here – I think it was the first blog post I ever commented on.
- And although it’s not math-specific, I genuinely appreciated David’s The Best Thing; at the time, it really hit home.

There you have it. Happy Holidays.

Today I sucked.

Learners were not collaborating – instead they were sitting in groups, but working alone. I haven’t fostered collaboration well enough.

Learners were not taking risks – instead they were waiting to be told what to do, afraid to play around with the math. I haven’t encouraged risk-taking or designed problems that are open enough.

Learners were not having mathematical discussions – instead they were asking each other (and me) “how to do it.” I haven’t created an environment where learners are encouraged to converse in a mathematical fashion.

Learners were not taking pride in the quality of their work – instead they were doing it to get it done. I haven’t created a situation that made them *want* or *need *their work to be high quality.

Some of this is probably my own perception; today is the last day of the quarter, so the thought that runs through my head is that we’re a quarter of the way through the year, so they should be starting to get it…right?

But some of this is reality. I will reflect on my practices. I will change some strategies. I will implement some strategies that should have been in place from the start. I will not give up on things that I know will work in the long run. Today I sucked. But Monday I will be better.

*Update: I was better Monday.*

Almost every day I have moments where I think about how I teach now versus how I would have taught it several years ago. I definitely had one of those moments today.

I spent 20 minutes after school helping a learner understand that calculating the mean requires that we divide by how many numbers are in the set (his misconception was that we always divide by 2). It would have been *soooo *easy to simply tell this learner what to do – but I’m confident that it would have done little to help dispel the misconception and create a lasting understanding. So I took my time, tried several examples, and helped the learner see a pattern. In the end, I received one of teaching’s greatest gifts: the “Ohhhhhhhh, now I get it!” (Kudos to this learner, by the way, for persisting and not yelling at me to just give the answer). I have much more confidence that this learner has a deeper understanding and has overcome the misconception because, in a sense, he *discovered* it for himself.

On a related note, last year we spent a week working on measures of dispersion in an effort to become more adept at interpreting and using data. In the end, however, I felt like the learners still had no clue about the purpose of things like standard deviation. This year I wanted it to be different. I wanted them to understand *why* measures of dispersion are important and useful. I wanted them to discover this themselves. So I gave them sets of data that had the same mean, median, and mode, but had very different spreads. Then I asked them to “invent” a measure of spread – they even got to name it – so that we could better interpret the data.

We spent two days on this and they developed some interesting methods. Many of them were very similar to interquartile range, and a few were similar to standard deviation. We tuned and tested their measures with various data sets, and as an extension some groups were tasked with “breaking” their measure by finding a data set for which it did not work properly. It was a bit messy, but fun (for me, at least).

Tomorrow we begin a couple of days of studying established measures of dispersion. While they may not become experts, I have no doubt that they will better understand their purpose and use…because they have already discovered it for themselves.

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